All Quiet at Tiananmen Square

IMG_5568Not so undercover officer.

An edited version of this appeared in Vice News

Today is the 25th anniversary of the “June 4th Incident.” Given all the arrests of lawyers and activists in the last few weeks, and knowing that security would be extra high, I don’t think anyone was expecting anything big today. But with what I saw last year in mind, I wanted to go anyway.

Normally when you go to Tiananmen Square foreigners are waved through the ID checks if there are any. But today, right after coming out of the subway exit, a police officer asked for my and my girlfriend’s passports. Mine is in the PSB getting a visa renewal right now and she forgot hers. I handed over my California driver’s license, which expired 3 years ago, and the officer put it on a desk where another officer was going through another guy’s papers. The second officer was flipping through his US passport and I could see an ID card that said “Press Card” on it, though I couldn’t see his name.

The officer was on his walkie-talkie trying to determine what to do with the “美国记者” – American journalist. While waiting for a reply he motioned for our passports. I told him we didn’t have them and pointed to my license with a 10 year old picture of me on it. He waved us through.

We had to wait in another area before going down the stairs to cross into the Square. Once in the tunnel, there was another checkpoint for bags and guards searching people with handheld metal detectors. It was about half an hour from the time we exited the subway to when we entered the Square.

DSC_0030The queue to the queue to get in.

The flag of Kuwait was flying and it felt hot enough to be in that country. It was noon and the Square was the emptiest I have ever seen it. The relatively low number of tourists accented the high number of police. We walked around trying to be tourists, posing in front of the landmarks and pointing at things. An officer rolled up to us on a segway scooter. He asked for our passports. “We don’t have them,” I told him. “What? Then how did you come to China?” he asked. I said I owned one, I just didn’t bring it today. “I have my driver’s license if you want to see that.” He took it and didn’t look at it. He tested our Chinese, asking us where we live and what we do. “Why did you come to Tiananmen Square today?” he asked. I made up some stupid answer about the weather being nice and he seemed satisfied with that. “You should remember to carry your passport at all times. It’s the law.” Then he segwayed away.

IMG_5561Tourists near the big screens – Fortune and Power, Democracy, Civilization, Harmony, Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule of Law, Patriotism, Dedication (to one’s work), Honesty, Friendliness. 

We wandered around for about an hour. Uniformed and plain-clothed police would come up close to us and follow us for a minute. We’d pose for more pictures. They’d move on. A small group of officers was filming the Square with a big camera on a tripod. I tried to imagine the events that took place a quarter of a century ago, to imagine who was walking among all these people for their own commemorations. How many people there knew what day it was? What were the people who did know thinking and feeling? I couldn’t exactly go and strike up a conversation about it, so I can’t say. How long until people will be able to stand in that huge space and openly say what the summer of 1989 means to them? We’ll see.

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